Noah’s, a secular cathedral1/15/2014
A food writer friend recently asked to meet for dinner while she visited Des Moines for the first time. She was on a 20-year-old mission to visit Noah’s Ark.
“My college roommate was from Des Moines, and she talked about Noah’s as if were some kind of holy cathedral. It’s been on my bucket list because of her devotion,” she explained.
The idea of secular cathedrals has been around since Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in which pilgrims congregate at an inn on their way to a cathedral. With roots beginning in 1946, Noah’s is as dedicated to the rites of tradition as any café in town. Founder Noah Lacona still comes in, usually on Saturday night, and presides like a bishop. Its neighborhood is its parish. Customers come with defined expectations — they prefer sitting at their usual tables and often order the same thing each time they visit. On a recent dinner there, a woman stopped by our table.
“I just had to see who was sitting in my usual place,” she explained, amazed she did not know us.
Noah’s consists of a series of distinctive rooms. The main dining room features large tables surrounded by cherished, semi-private booths. The barroom features a working fireplace. A front room, with museum-quality nautical trappings, is close enough to the pizza oven to offer aromatic stimulation. Completely private rooms are available for larger parties upstairs. Other design details should be gospel for all Des Moines restaurants. Noah’s employs both a vestibule and revolving doors, assuring that cold drafts do not chill a cozy dinner. An open pizza-making area allows those waiting for a table to watch young curates tossing dough into pies or to examine the many desserts.
Customers and waitresses address each other by first names, and these are not the kind of waitresses who introduce themselves. Noah’s menu has not changed much in 50 years. Most recipes still come from Noah Lacona’s mother, Teresa. Calabrese marinara, homemade cavatelli and meatballs, different styles of ravioli, lasagna that is made with rigatoni, braised prime beef tips with noodles and gravy, a fresh lobster tank and spumoni ice cream with rum sauce have been ordained here. Like all mid-20th century Italian restaurants in Des Moines, fried chicken, fried chicken livers, steaks and prime rib are a cherished part of the menu. Noah’s “Colbert sauce” (a reduction of chopped shallots, crushed peppercorns, white wine and demi-glace) has converted steak house zealots. A prime rib dinner, with a choice of two side dishes and Noah’s legendary yeast rolls, cost less than $20 with taxes and tip included.
“I have paid three times as much for less,” my food writer friend acknowledged.
Some traditions can be irksome. My insalata Romana was made recently with iceberg, not Romaine lettuce, and a double-digit ratio of vinegar to olive oil. Some new twists seemed odd within the context. Tiny “love knobs” are sometimes served instead of the holy yeast rolls, sometimes in addition to them. The “when and why” remains a mystery. A “Naple’s Margarita” pizza, a relatively new item along with three other specialty pies, was made with generous amounts of tomato filets and buffalo-milk mozzarella but almost no basil.
In addition to the spumoni and rum sauce, desserts include Noah’s Blackout cake (two layers of chocolate cake, chocolate chips, chocolate ganache, chocalte leaves and almonds), cannoli imported from Chicago and five other cakes. A 32-item wine list, mostly Californian and Italian, ranged in bottle price from $22-$71, with most available by the glass. Espresso ranked with coffeehouse drinks.
Side Dishes Splash’s wine education series will cover wines of Australia and New Zealand on Jan 30 for $40, which includes food courses. For reservations call 244-5686. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.